NEWS- Non-fiction? DA, cop sue Grisham over book

John Grisham's book about two men convicted of a 1982 murder only to be exonerated in 1999 by DNA evidence was the best-selling non-fiction book of 2006, according to Publisher's Weekly, with over 2 million copies sold.

John Grisham knew there was one advantage to sticking to legal thrillers of the fictional variety: your characters can't jump off the page and sue you.

On Friday, September 28, two Oklahoma men featured in the best-selling author's non-fiction debut, The Innocent Man, filed suit in Eastern Oklahoma Federal Court against Charlottesville's most famous scribe and his publisher. The men allege that Grisham libeled them in the book whose subtitle is Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.

The two plaintiffs– an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent and the Pontotoc County district attorney– allege that they were unfairly portrayed in Grisham's narrative of the wrongful conviction of one-time professional baseball player Ron Williamson, who spent more than a decade on death row before DNA evidence exonerated him. Their suit says that the book is rife with falsehoods and misrepresentations "designed to defame the Plaintiffs as well as create publicity that cast the Plaintiffs in a false light."

Grisham would say only, "It would be inappropriate for me to comment on pending litigation."

The complaint doesn't list any explicitly defamatory statements, but the DA, Bill Peterson, launched a website that doesn't allege misstatements so much as cite numerous passages where Grisham doesn't tell the whole story.

"When objectivity and balance are unduly compromised in favor of dramatic license," Peterson writes, "the truth suffers."

Can there be such thing as libel by omission?

Thomas Nachbar, a professor of media law at the UVA Law School, says there are circumstances where cherry-picking facts would be considered libelous. "If you say a person was seen leaving the scene with his hands covered in blood and you know he's a surgeon, there's a falsehood implied by that," he explains.

Among the numerous examples listed on are accusations that Grisham ascribes motives and thought patterns to Peterson and the other plaintiff although the writer allegedly spoke to Peterson for only half an hour four months before the book's publication, and that he never spoke to agent Gary Rogers.

Grisham's book also implies Peterson settled a lawsuit with the two wrongfully convicted men (the other got life in prison) when, in fact, a judge dismissed Peterson's portion of the suit, and it was other defendants in the same suit who had settled. Grisham hints that Peterson should have known about the real killer's history of violence against women even though those violent offenses occurred four to five years after the murder in question. Grisham also suggests that Peterson relied on unreliable hair evidence before such methods were found to be inconclusive.

Peterson has posted scans of his correspondence with Grisham via faxed letters. On October 19, 2006, after Peterson raised two of his objections, Grisham conceded, "I am sure you will find more than two errors. Such is the nature of non-fiction."

When Peterson responded that he didn't believe Grisham's mistakes were made in good faith, Grisham advised him, "Save yourself some time. Lose my address and fax number."

H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger knows a thing or two about dealing with people who have been unflatteringly portrayed. He wrote Friday Night Lights, the classic account of the 1988 high school football season in Odessa, Texas. Nobody sued, but Bissinger had to face charges of unfairness in the court of public opinion.

"I had to cancel a book signing down that way due to threats of bodily harm against me," says Bissinger. "The only people who were upset about the book were people who are in there only very briefly who didn't like how I delved into issues of racism and where they were putting their educational priorities."

As far as "dramatic license" is concerned, Bissinger says for his part, he always wants to spin a good yarn, but never at the expense of the truth. "You want to tell the best possible story, but you don't change facts around," he says. "Sometimes that means you don't get the story you want, but so be it."

In working on his 2005 book, Three Nights in August, about a three-game series between baseball's Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals, Bissinger says, he got to know Grisham through the Charlottesvillian's friendship with Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. Bissinger is confident his friend is standing on high ethical ground.

"All I can do is sympathize with John, because lawsuits are often without merit, and they put the writers through hell. But he'll get through this," he says. "He's an impeccable man, and I have no doubt he'll be vindicated."

The suit seeks in excess of $75,000, and an Oklahoma federal judge has set a tentative trial date of August 18, 2008. Also named as a defendant to the suit is noted defense attorney Barry Scheck, who heads a group called The Innocence Project.

This isn't the first time Grisham has been named in a lawsuit. In 2000, a parent at St. Anne's-Belfield School accused Grisham of trying to inflict emotional distress when he, as a board member, accused her of writing nasty anonymous letters. In July 2005, a judge threw out the case, only to have his ruling overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court in January. In May, the parent offered a $10,000 reward for information about the identity of the letter writer on her website,